You may have noticed stories in recent days about the use, by several government agencies in the United States, of “rogue” Twitter accounts to counter what at least some of their staff view as inappropriate prohibitions by the new Trump administration of the use of their official social media channels to make information available on topics, and in ways, that were not going to be officially sanctioned.
According to one version of the story, rogue accounts were spreading across the US public administration landscape “like wildfire”. The National Park Service, NASA and the US Forestry Service are examples (according to one listing, there are 80 such accounts).
It isn’t always clear who is actually running these accounts – the disaffected public servants themselves or “agents” in the community who are being fed information to post which is being officially banned by the administration.
Much of the contention is about climate change and what can and can’t be said or promoted on official Twitter and other material because it conflicts with the official position of the new government. One meteorologist (who isn’t a public servant), put it this way:
“I think that it’s natural that scientists would want to retain their political power and say. ‘This is not OK and we as scientists want to stand up for fact-based policy and spreading the truth that human activity is changing the climate.”
Here’s now another version described what is happening:
Something remarkable in science communication happened this week – dozens of anonymous Twitter accounts popped up claiming to be “rogue” US Government employees risking their jobs and possible prison time to take to Twitter to fight back against government censorship. Many of the accounts offered a specific focus on publicizing climate change science, claiming to be speaking on behalf of silenced government employees. The accounts became instant viral sensations, heralded by the press and activists as heroes risking everything to stand up to oppression. The “alternative” National Park Service account quickly racked up more than 1.3 million followers and citizens of the world rejoiced that scientists and park rangers had joined forces in defiance of censorship and that climate change could no longer be silenced.
But the problem is that it isn ‘t always clear that the “rogue” social media sites are actually being run by disaffected public servants. As the same report points out:
Yet, strangely, precious few stopped to ask how we knew that the people behind these accounts were really the US Government employees they claimed to be. In a world in which “fake news” has become the buzzword du jour, it was particularly astonishing to see media article after media article largely accepting at face value the accounts’ claims that they were all government employees risking everything to ensure the truth was not silenced, while the activist community hailed them as hero government servants. When outlets like Slate began to ask for verification, the reaction from the Twitter community was swift and unilaterally negative.
The story raises some great questions about the practice and ethics of public service, and about the way the institution of the civil service (in this case, a decidedly American version) confronts the possibility that, in order to defend its values, it is sometimes necessary to act in ways which run counter to those same values.
In these US cases, are these public servants being brave or stupid? Are they manifesting the best instincts of, and a deep commitment to, the “public”, whose interests they would presumably argue they ultimately serve? Or are they being reckless and irresponsible by deciding that it is okay for them to defy the legitimate directives of the government of the day and, in effect, take the “law” into their own hands? What do public servants do when they find themselves confronted with the need to do something in the course of their professional work with which they don’t agree?
The “flight or fight” choice is being discussed on Facebook based on an article in Politico, which put the question bluntly. Should you (as a public servant) resign from the Trump Administration?
Price Floyd, who wrote the article, is a former US civil servant who resigned from the State Department in 2007 after 18 years in the service. This is how he explained his decision:
I resigned because of what I called the “say-do” gap. At the time, the George W. Bush administration had taken several decisions that seemed at odds with its stated foreign policy: pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, refusing to take part in the International Criminal Court and pulling out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Added to that was the fallout from the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib and the retention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. At the time, we said we wanted not only to lead the world but also be an example that others would want to emulate – yet our actions spoke otherwise. I couldn’t defend them.
Floyd sees parallels in the early signs of the same “say-do” gap in the actions and words of the Trump administration. He goes a bit further, and wonders “whether Trump and his team is in touch with reality.”
Somewhat more prosaically, he suggests there are a number of questions that a civil servant might ask, in the light of which they could determine “should I stay or should I go?”
- When policies are being developed, is the process open? Does it allow for me to provide my input and expertise? Does the new leadership seek the insights and experiences of the other career staff?
- Am I cut out of the decision-making process? Do political appointees make decisions without input from career experts?
- Does the department/agency/office I work in act in an ethical manner?
- Does it take actions that, if known by the public/media, would call into question the ethical standards of the leadership?
- Are the public statements by my department/agency/office truthful? Are public statements false or misleading, or do they leave out important facts or otherwise deflect and deny reality?
These stories illustrate well the dilemma. Is it right to stay and fight and, if necessary, to essentially subvert the wishes of the elected government to keep faith, as you see it, with the values you believe should infuse your work as a public servant?
Or do you, like Price Floyd, determine that there is a line in the sand in terms of the things you are asked to do by any government which, if crossed, leaves you no choice but to leave.
Prominent conservative political advisor and now academic at Johns Hopkins University, Eliot Cohen, comes to a tough and uncompromising conclusion in his analysis of the same dilemma:
To friends still thinking of serving as political appointees in this administration, beware: When you sell your soul to the Devil, he prefers to collect his purchase on the installment plan. Trump’s disregard for either Secretary of Defense Mattis or Secretary-designate Tillerson in his disastrous policy salvos this week, in favor of his White House advisers, tells you all you need to know about who is really in charge. To be associated with these people is going to be, for all but the strongest characters, an exercise in moral self-destruction.